Internet DefamationArriving at his warehouse last week Knott Faire, owner of Faire Carpet Cleaning, discovered yet another complaining critique posted on WELP: “Lots of hype, a mediocre cleaning and a hassle at the end. Don’t get tied up with Knott!” In over 75 previous reviews only 3 were slightly negative. Since the “hype” complaint, another dozen scathing complaints were logged. Believing that the negative reviews are from a competitor, not his customers, Knott called his trusty lawyer Icahn Ficksit for help. Icahn issued WELP a subpoena demanding production of identifying information and ISP (Internet Service Provider) addresses for the dozen offenders. Can Ficksit successfully subpoena the documents? What should Knott Faire do about his on-line reputation?

Ficksit may well not get the documents he wants. In Texas, probably not. Texas courts require a defamation plaintiff to submit sufficient evidence of a prima facie case on each essential element of the claim (see Cahill and Dendrite) to subpoena the documents sought. Just saying the postings are tortious or illegal is not enough. Texas businesses seeking personal details about website users must lay out actual facts to support the subpoena. For example, if the reviewer was a customer and the posted review was based on personal experience, defamation is not likely. If the statement is false and the reviewer was never a customer, then the review is not an opinion and may well be based on a false, defamatory statement.

Internet Crisis Control for Knott Faire?

Faire probably should focus more carefully on fixing his internet reputation. How can Knott Faire best get this done?

Be Proactive.  “Nip it in the bud.” Release your side of negative information first, by putting your most favorable spin on the facts. If it is reasonable, it will be believed.

Be Upfront.  Consider contacting and offering to meet with the online poster if the negative comments have already been posted. Be conciliatory.

Apologize if Necessary.  Consider ‘fessing up to your mistakes. A quick apology is less painful and less costly than years of litigation, and is likely to put you in a better light rather than appearing to be clueless and defiant.

Negotiate to Get the Post Down.  Consider the cost to get it down. Words are forgotten. Even newsprint fades. The permanence of the web creates a major branding challenge.

Own Your SEO (Search Engine Optimization).  Consider creating your own content and drive the bad stuff down in search engine rankings. Only your worst enemy will look for dirt on you past the first Google search page. See Reputation Repair below.

And, know that there are those who believe that any company that sues over online reviews someone makes is clearly a company not worth doing business with, since they might, potentially, sue you over any bad review you write online about them.

Tilting the Scales in Your Favor.

Our advice on this subject of almost two years ago is the same today. Consider undertaking internet reputation repair. Managing your internet reputation is not a new idea. In fact, Gray Reed regularly works with some of our clients on crisis communications and dealing with damaging or misinformation on the internet. There are also internet service providers and websites like Reputation Changer, Reputation Management Consultants, Integrity Defenders,and Online Reputation Management that promote their ability to clear negative search results arising from an internet search engine. And by the way, consumer-review websites—whether Yelp, Angie’s List, Google + Local, Yahoo Local Listings, or—are shielded from liability for defamation claims stemming from user comments under the Communications Decency Act of 1996.

Prior Tilting Articles.

Also check out: Defamation Law: The Basics